To recap a bit where we are in this discussion. So I would say Freddie and ED (to a degree) subscribe roughly to what I call the Radiohead Theory of Foreign Policy: i.e. the US singing “I wish I were special but I’m a creep….What the hell am I doin’ here/I don’t belong here (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.).” While Scott is trying to stake out a moderated form of interventionism.
Then there was some pushback in the comments–e.g. every dominant power seeks to mold the world in its image, create a sphere of influence, etc. Which is true but not always true in the same way. When Woodrow Wilson said he wanted to make the world “safe for democracy” he didn’t mean creating a bunch of democracies around the world but making the world environment safe for the then existing democracies. That was certainly Wilson attempting to influence the larger world to the benefit of America and allies but not necessarily in such a way as to create a new standard whereby the world must be democratic or rather naively believe that if the whole of the world were to become so (or more foolishly even inevitably so given globalized economics) that we would be approaching some envisioned End of History.
Generally I find these discussions difficult because they tend to expand out rather broadly and generally (both geographically and historically) from the original issue in question. When the conversation so generalizes it becomes difficult (for me anyway) to make heads or tails of it. I mean sure, the US empire (if that is what you would like to call it) is superior in my mind to say a Nazi or Soviet-style one, but there’s a difference in my mind between saying that and then excusing horrible (imo) acts of the US during the 20th and 21st century. The alternative may be worse but that doesn’t make the present good.
So I would like to go back instead to the country Scott originally referenced in this discussion (Iraq) and its current situation. He wrote:
So given that Iraq had largely peaceful provincial elections this past weekend, in which voter turn out was much higher than in 2005, where a certain proportion of the seats up for grabs were allocated to women who ran in the election, and where no one seems to be disputing the results, let me propose a highly contingent hypothetical.
If this is a trend that continues and increasingly results in a lowering of violence that both adds to the stability of Iraq and enables American troops to come sooner rather than later, and if the democratic process in Iraq presents the conditions under which a greater degree of civil society is able to take greater hold better integrating Iraq into the global economy and thereby raising the general quality of life for Iraqis and imporiving the degree of stability in the region, would we not count that as a positive development for Iraq and the world generally?
As a bit of a counterpoint, there has been a curfew imposed in Anbar due to the elections and as Marc Lynch pointed out the real question is what happens if somebody wins and isn’t seated in the government. So while I’m not necessarily arguing dark days ahead, I think this has to play itself out before judgments are really made as to success/failure.
In response to Scott’s idea of releasing the pressure/impediment valves via intervention and not confusing modernization with Westernization, where can Iraq in the near term realistically go politically? I think getting a handle on that question will go some ways (perhaps a long ways) towards evaluating Scott’s proposal.
I remember watching then Sen. Joe Biden on one of his (innumerable) TV interviews during the debate over the surge and he said, whatever you think militarily about the surge tactic (note: not a strategy) politically Iraq has only three choices:
1. A new strongman/dictator emerges (Shia in nature but potentially more nationalistic in rhetoric)
2. The country breaks up into separate countries or “federalizes” (as per Biden’s plan)
3. The Shia essentially exterminate the Sunni (with the Kurds on the sidelines)
To which I would add a fourth possibility: Iraq becomes another Lebanon. i.e. A weak central government with militias that have massive power outside the bounds of the government-army and splits along ethnic-religious lines. (Though technically not federalized a la The Balkans).
My general sense around the time of the Surge was that #2 or #4 was the most likely and while that may still be the case, the results so far leaked of the election suggest Iraq is potentially moving much more strongly to #1. Maliki’s list which is pushing for strong centralization of power and security seems to be winning over say the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council which pushed for a Shia autonomous region in the South (a la the Kurds in the North). Which is freaking out the Kurds, his erstwhile ally.
So, in terms of lifting the impediments–in this precise case which I have no idea how far it does or doesn’t qualify as more universal in potential scope–lifting the impediments of a Sunni dictatorship meant for sure a rise of the Shia and Kurdish de-facto independence. Notice that the provincial elections where in 14 of the 18 provinces–where do you think those other four provinces were that didn’t have their elections? Hint: Starts with K and ends with urdistan. Whether the releasing of the impediments leads to success or not certainly depends on an individual or group’s location–the Sunni Arabs of Iraq would certainly not say this has been so.
It meant that undoubtedly that rise of the Shia would be resisted by large segments of the Sunni population. It also created the potential for Arab-Kurdish violence which is near close to boiling over right now in Kirkuk and Nineveh province.
Even if Maliki were to achieve relative security in the country it will come at the cost of the deep and long-term marginalization of the Sunni. If Maliki is indeed angling to become the Shia dictator of Iraq the history of that country is clear that the only way to keep the entirety of Iraq together is through conquering the Kurds. Just ask Saddam Hussein. So there could be a new Arab vs. Kurd axis taking place along with the still existing Sunni Arab vs. Shia Arab fault-line. A worst case scenario would be an Iraq-Turkey pincher move on the Kurds with the Iranians and Syrians staying on the sidelines.
But that dystopic view aside, in the case of Iraq generally I would say there is no way for the game to be at least in large measure anything other than a zero-sum one. I have no idea whether Iraq now is better than before or not. You can’t replay the tape on that one and see what if. I do know it’s more bloodied and scarred. It’a s country in an almost permanent state of post-traumatic stress.
I’m 29 years old; I was born in 1979. If I had been born in Iraq in 1979 and lived my life there I would have (if I lived which is percentage-wise not particularly likely) seen the following in my life:
From birth to age 8. The horrific Iran-Iraq war.
(approx. age 12) The First Gulf War and the horrors that launched.
1992-2003: the ungodly sanctions regime and the furthering consolidation of the demonic Hussein regime.
2003-Present. The US occupation, another war, Civil Bloodshed, the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad, and now a period of only relative craziness, death, and poverty.
In other words, I would be pretty f-ed up as a human being.
That’s not to say the history can’t change, that new possibilities can’t really emerge. But if they were they would only emerge in relation to the history of said country. And in that regard I think Iraq is a particularly poor candidate for the kind of idea Scott is outlining. Again whether it might work elsewhere I have no idea. Some have clearly benefited, even in the midst of that insane cruelty from the invasion, others have not. The determination of what constitutes success or not in that type of situation is profoundly fraught to put it mildly. Particularly from my home in my t-shirt typing at my computer.
The releasing of the impediments in this case unfroze the country which Saddam’s icy totalitarian rule had glacially sheeted over. But when the thawing occurs, the boiling angers, repressions, vendettas, the history, the bloodlust often comes right back to the surface and these sort of social psychoses will play themselves out. Particularly if you botch the post-war occupation as badly as the US did in Iraq (borderline criminal stupidity imo). But even there in the long run, who knows, things might be better in some ways. They will certainly be worse in others. And perhaps just as bloody (and I mean literally bloody) awful as they were before.
This isn’t relativsim but rather an invitation into this place of a kind of sorrow or meditation upon these events. A place of unknowing. A place that for a time anyway holds off from the immediate reaction of taking up the fixed position, finding your favorite piece of historical information to back up your view (given US history there is more than enough historical ammo on all sides of that intellectual gunfight).
I’m not sure where it goes exactly but it does suggest to me that “intervening” and being “intervened” is always part of the reality. That intervention need not be militaristic in nature.
If you held my feet to the fire and asked me for my projection on Iraq I would say it’s tending towards a new strongman with perhaps some political evolution. It will be Shia dominated and the Sunni will for a long time (decades) will be a suppressed minority which will find outlet in certain periods in violence. I still have some fear that all out war could re-ignite when the Americans leave, but perhaps less so than I did a year ago. The increasing volatility between Maliki and the Kurds however makes me very nervous. Overall my sense of the US departure from Iraq will mean a deeper withdrawing than just troops from the region. Won’t be a total withdrawal by any means, but I see the Middle East generally working now on its own logic more and more. With Iran getting a bomb, the Egyptian government potentially falling, Islamism gaining, Turkey playing a much stronger role in the region, and Iraq as muddling along somewhere in the middle.
The US will become much more focused on Central and Southwest Asia.